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The Seeds of Disaster


Future world harvests are in grave danger. The problem is ‘genetic erosion’; a phenomenon which biologists have worried about for years but about which the public seems to be virtually unaware. Biologist George M. Woodwell describes it as ‘one of the great issues of our time, ‘right up there with nuclear proliferation. The ultimate resource is the biota* - there is no other. And we are destroying this resource.’

What is being ‘eroded’ is the genetic diversity of the world’s crops. The more different species there are of any given crop the more chance there is that there will be enough of them capable of resisting a particular disease. And since the diseases and pests are constantly ‘mutating’ into more diverse forms, we need plants capable of making similar steady changes.

But the centralised development and high-pressure marketing of the new hybrid high-yielding varieties of seed are now spreading uniformity around the world and thus destroying the broad genetic base that has protected us for centuries. Whereas farmers used to save seeds from the previous year’s harvest to plant again, they cannot do that with the hybrids because they will not reproduce themselves correctly. Farmers now sell all their crop and have to go back to the seed companies for more.

Where do the old varieties go? Many are just lost forever - disappearing perhaps in the last bowl of porridge - but some others are being kept in gene banks, both public and corporate. United Brands controls two-thirds of the banana genetic material now in storage and there are similar collections of other crops. As Dr Margary Lee Oldfield recently wrote, those who controlled the world’s remaining gene material in any crop ‘would indeed possess almost infinite political and economic power’.

For the developing countries the irony is that they already ‘own’ much of the world’s precious genetic diversity (see box). But that source is now being raided by Western companies and then sold back to the Third World in the form of uniform and therefore vulnerable hybrids.

Warnings about the vulnerability of the new hybrids have been sounded at least since World War II, but no-one listened until blight struck the US corn crop in 1970, leaving the Southern states with only half a harvest. Dr William Caldwell of the US Department of Agriculture commented: ‘We were sitting around fat, dumb and happy . , . the hybrids were doing well, and all of a sudden the disease hit. We didn’t believe it could happen but it did.’ What happened was that a disease had attacked the Texas (T) Cytoplasm which is common to almost all hybrids growing in the South. The proliferation of corporate brand names had disguised the fundamental genetic uniformity of the seeds. Frustrated and angry farmers have had several companies in the law courts ever since.

A year later in India the ‘pearl millet’ crop was devastated. It was a high-yielding but also highly uniform hybrid and when attacked by a form of downy mildew it was defenceless. At a symposium in 1977, Dr K.M. Saufeeulla of Mysore pointed out the difference between the two events. The US corn blight, he said, ‘had led to an upward movement of prices’; the pearl millet wipeout in India ‘led to starvation’.

Prompted by the corn blight a report by the US Academy of Sciences came to the conclusion that the US is ‘impressively uniform genetically and impressively vulnerable’. The US millet crop, for example, consists of just three varieties and 75 per cent of Canadian bread wheat comes from four varieties. Similar disturbing figures can be produced for other North American and Australian crops.

When the West gets into trouble it looks to the Third World. University of California agronomist J.B. Kendrick recently calculated that,without regular infusion of germ plasm from the Third World , North Americans would soon experience devastating crop epidemics ,at a rapidly accelerating rate across the entire crop spectrum’.

In the 1970s, US pea and spinach producers narrowly escaped crop wipe-outs by using emergency germ plasm introduced from India and Iran. And just a few years ago North African germ plasm rescued the Canadian oat crop from rust.

But now the Green Revolution and the whole ‘genetics supply industry’ are bringing about the rapid destruction of these centres of genetic diversity. The Cilician Plain in Turkey - once home to thousands of flax varieties - now grows only one imported variety. The Central Asian farmers who were the first to breed barley, now plant varieties imported from Sweden. Mexico’s maize farmers - who virtually invented the crop - now buy hybrid maize seed from Pioneer Hi-bred International in the USA. FAO officials now predict that Middle East wheat may completely disappear by the end of the 1980s.

The replacement of these diverse crops by the uniform Green Revolution hybrids is a result of market-place logic. If farmers were offered a high-yielding variety and could afford to pay for the massive inputs of fertilizer and irrigation they required, naturally they would take the opportunity. The country’s genetic heritage was not of primary concern to either buyer or seller.

Originally financed by foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller, the Green Revolution very quickly involved the world’s agrichemical companies who soon became the important salesmen.

They reasonably saw it as an important marketing opportunity for their products. In some countries (Indonesia, for example) the Green Revolution was entirely sub-contracted to European chemical companies.

Originally they were primarily interested in the fertilizers and pesticides since these could be patented and sold for a high price. Seeds had always presented a problem because, however uniform the species, no two plants can ever be exactly the same and therefore cannot be strictly protected by patents.

To get round this, a new concept was introduced: ‘Plant Breeders Rights’ (PBR), which allows something closely equivalent to patent control over living organisms. In 1961, the principle of such rights was enshrined in a new international convention - the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, now linked with the UN system. Each year new countries are added to the list of those who honour these rights.

The effect on the seed industry was dramatic - small seed companies suddenly became important properties. Europe was quickest off the mark. In the week that PBR legislation was passed in the United Kingdom, one food and chemical corporation, Rank Hovis McDougall, bought out 84 small companies. And acquisitions were so extensive following the Plant Variety Act in the USA that the American Seed Trade Association devoted half its general meeting to a special symposium called ‘How to sell your Seed Company’.

Who were the buyers? To no-one’s very great surprise they turned out to be mainly the chemical giants. Today the seed industry is dominated by the likes of Ciba-Geigy, Sandoz, Pfizer, Upjohn, Monsanto, Union Carbide and Royal Dutch Shell. With the advent of PBR the seed industry was transformed from a host of small private enterprises into a chemical oligopoly.

Why were the seed producers bought by the chemical companies rather than by the grain or the farm machinery companies? The answer is that the chemical companies were already closely involved and they saw the chance of greater control. There was now the opportunity to dovetail their chemical and seeds research in such a way that one needs the other and the products of both can be sold together.

Suppose, for example, that a new high-yield variety of rice blows over in a high wind. The plant breeder has a choice of two remedies - either to breed a shorter stem or to breed a stronger stem. But of these two remedies the plant breeder who is also selling herb herbicides will be tempted to choose the shorter stem, because then he can sell a herbicide to kill the tall weeds which would otherwise choke the short-stemmed rice.

And a plant breeder who was also selling fungicides might not be too concerned that his new wheat hybrids were not resistant to wheat rust when he had the appropriate fungicide already on the shelf. Then there is the question of coordinated delivery. Chemical companies are now hard at work developing seed-pelleting techniques so that farmers get their seed pre-coated in chemicals whether they want them or not.

But the marketing of these uniform hybrid seeds does not stop in the West. Most developing countries do not yet have PBR legislation but they are markets for the same seed companies, who naturally wish to sell their products in as many places as possible. According to Dr N. L. Innes of the UK National Vegetable Research Station: ‘In the developing tropical world, commercial and state seed companies are fast making inroads.’ And he adds that ‘now is the time to conserve as many land races and wild varieties as possible,’

In theory the world’s genetic resources are conserved by an international network of gene banks, where seeds are stored. Central to this network is the international Board of Plant Genetic Resources in Rome. The Board speaks of an ‘emerging network’ of more than 60 gene banks around the world sharing in this task. In reality however many of these are little more than paper promises and a household-style deep-freeze. None are adequately funded.

The world’s genetic Fort Knox is the national seed storage laboratory in the USA. It is trusted with, amongst other things, the world’s wheat collection. But it has not had a budget increase for fifteen years; it has only the most rudimentary security precautions and is located midway between a major munitions factory and a nuclear reactor.

There is however a substantial private collection in the hands of the corporations. That may or may not be reassuring. Staff at the major Canadian gene bank report that the private sector has failed to cooperate by divulging information on the genetic material it has in store - two of the culprits are Maple Leaf Mills and Campbell Soup of Canada. The companies can perform a valuable function by incorporating into their own programmes germ plasm that otherwise might have risked extinction. But they do put themselves into a position of political power as the world becomes dependent on them for that crop.

Particularly disturbing for the Third World is that both the important gene banks and the breeding developments which use these genes are in the West. Kenya, for example, is now buying tropical legume seeds developed in Australia based on indigenous Kenyan varieties. There is no record of any payment by Australia for the original material. An identical problem has been reported in Libya where forage seed, exported free to Australia, has been reimported in a slightly altered form at commercial prices - a bizarre situation but one, which makes perfect sense commercially.

The direction that the seed revolution is taking is becoming increasingly clear. While taking what seem reasonable commercial decisions, we could be on the road to disaster. But it is not too late to act. An adequate system of germ plasm conservation could save the day. Seeds could be freed now from commercial exploitation and patenting. The Third World nations could take control of their own valuable plant resources instead of letting them be squandered by the West. There is still, just, the chance to avoid irreparable damage to global food resources.

‘An avalanche of salesmen’

Selling seeds may be a new role for the agrichemical companies. But they are no strangers to peasant farmers in the Third World. As this year’s State of the World Environment Report from the UN Environment Programme points out, indiscrimate spreading of pesticides in the Third World has often poisoned land and people - and the pests themselves are now producing strains resistant to chemical attack. *HUGO FERNANDEZ* describes the dramatic effect the companies have had in one small community.

‘First they tell us to buy their poisons to help us kill the pests,’ says Aguilar bitterly, ‘Now they say we need new poisons to combat the problems caused by the first ones. My God, while we are doing that I think these insects will eat us alive.’

Anisar Aguilar is a poor Bolivian farmer whose fields have been swamped by a strange new plague of moths that it seems nothing will really shift. He lives in Comparapa, an isolated community in the high, humid subtropics of Bolivia. The major crop is tomatoes. Back in 1965 peasants who had gone to the cities of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz came back with fantastic stories. They had been told by the shop­keepers about the amazing new pesticides which would soon make the farmers rich.

‘First one bought,’ says Aguilar, ‘then another. After that there was an avalanche of salesmen. Now look where we are.’

The energy and propaganda of the sales-men were overpowering and enormous quantities were sold. But the chemicals were applied more or less indicriminately - often in the wrong way and at the wrong time - under the guidance of salesmen who were just about as badly informed as the farmers.

‘It wasn’t our fault, Aguilar claims. ‘We were so excited by the thought that we would soon be free of the whims of nature. What would you have done?’

But after three years they were in for a nasty surprise. Out of the mixture of chemicals and tomatoes a strange new moth appeared. It reproduced itself at a terrifying rate, devouring all the tomatoes it could find. The chemicals, it seemed, had disturbed the previous natural balance and given the moth a free rein.

The farmers’ first reaction was to increase the dosage of the pesticide and then try one new chemical after another. But the story was to follow an all too familiar pattern. It just needed one or two resistant moths to breed, and they could produce a new and tougher strain, immune to the most powerful pesticide.

So now in Comarapa they had a plague of moths that appeared virtually indestructible. And even worse, the moths were emigrating to other parts of the country where they had never been seen before.

When the peasants looked for help, they found the salesmen had made themselves scarce.

And the Bolivian government simply do not have the resources to check on the flood of new chemicals that arrive on the market every day.

The chemicals are still coming to Comparapa. New salesmen have now arrived with new pesticides which they say will finish off the evil moth. And indeed they have produced good results to date. But Aguilar is suspicious of what will happen in three years time. As he says ‘A butterfly usually brings behind it a bigger moth.’

Aguilar himself has returned to more natural methods. He is letting some of his land lie fallow and switching his irrigation around in the hope that the moths will go away. Some of his friends, however, have lost all hope. They have not only seen their harvests disappear but they feel they have lost the creative potential of the land itself. So serious is the situation that the suicide rate amongst the peasants has dramatically increased.

‘They think they are the killers of "Pachamama" - Mother Earth. Now they are committing suicide - by drinking the pesticides that caused all their problems.’

*Hugo Fernandez* is Director of the Bolivian peasant organisation CIPCA.

New Internationalist issue 081 magazine cover This article is from the November 1979 issue of New Internationalist.
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